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BOUND TO PLEASE / Appreciate the big picture, but don’t overlook the details

The Japan News

By Yung-Hsiang Kao / Japan News Staff WriterOn Grand Strategy

By John Lewis Gaddis

Allen Lane, 368pp

To get anywhere, you need to know where you’re headed. But simply having a compass does not guarantee you’ll reach your destination. There are always pitfalls to avoid on the way, and it takes common sense not to be bogged down in some swamp while following the compass’ straight line.

This, in essence, is strategy.

Since 2002, John Lewis Gaddis, a professor of history at Yale University who is known for his studies on the Cold War, has been jointly teaching a seminar called “Studies in Grand Strategy.” It forms part of the basis for his latest book.

“Grand” refers to the stakes involved. For Gaddis, that can apply to the strategies of individual people as well as states. The key is to align the strategy to “time, space, and scale.”

One famous case study in the failure to align with these aspects is that of Napoleon in Russia. Napoleon overextended his supply lines across space, as the Russians had an abundance of land into which they could continually retreat. Rather than change his strategy to align with time as winter weather was approaching, the emperor marched on until forced to make a lengthy return home with his troops, the majority of whom did not survive. Finally, the destruction to Napoleon’s army also destroyed morale, pushing the scale of his battles against Russia to a level he couldn’t overcome as he became vulnerable thereafter.

The U.S. minister to Russia at the time, John Quincy Adams — who later became U.S. president — wrote, “Of the immense host with which six months since [Napoleon] invaded Russia, nine-tenths at least are prisoners or food for worms.”

Gaddis draws on not only Adams but also on writers such as Niccolo Machiavelli (“The Prince”), Carl von Clausewitz (“On War”) and his favorite novelist Leo Tolstoy (“War and Peace”) for accessible supporting materials to inform his ideas on grand strategy.

Whereas Napoleon’s aspirations outstripped his capabilities, Abraham Lincoln is given as an example of one who knew that ends could be infinite, but means were finite. Lincoln made sure war was an “instrument of policy.”

“Lincoln proclaimed emancipation chiefly for military reasons, but ... gave the Union the high ground of conscience ... so no foreign state could ... recognize the Confederate slavocracy, much less to intervene on its behalf,” Gaddis writes.

The analogy of the compass and the swamp comes itself from Lincoln, albeit as he was portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in the 2012 Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln.” Gaddis uses dialogue from the film to talk about the proverbial fox who knows many things and the hedgehog who knows one big thing. Hedgehog-like Napoleon plows straight ahead north, while fox-like Lincoln adjusts course to avoid swamps. Yet Gaddis reminds readers that it’s never quite that simple, nor is it desirable to stick to one extreme or the other.

Common sense and experience play a role as well. For grand strategy to succeed, one needs elements of both the hedgehog and the fox. Gaddis makes this point most clearly when he quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald on first-rate intelligence being “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

Perhaps the best kind of strategist, Gaddis suggests, is one like a juggler or tightrope walker, always engaged in a balancing act.

Where to Read

Wherever there is internet access to look up the intriguing names and places mentioned in the book.

Price: ¥4,140 plus tax (Varies with exchange rate)

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